An illegal whale meat operation was recently exposed in South Korea seizing over 50 tonnes of minke whale meat. Accidentally caught cetaceans can be legally sold in South Korean restaurants (located in Ulsan, Busan and Pohang) as long as this death is reported to the Maritime Police.
South Korea is a migratory corridor for a number of cetacean species, including the highly endangered Western Gray Whale. Only about 121 individuals survive, with entanglement and other anthropogenic threats undermining their comeback from over-exploitation during commercial whaling days. Local populations of species also exist around the Peninsula, such as the tiny finless porpoise.
The marine mammal by-catch problem has been labelled “marine bushmeat” (1), and presents many of the same issues as terrestrial bushmeat, including loss of biodiversity and threatening endangered populations. In a recent paper (2), researchers used techniques to identify the species and origins of cetacean meat sold in South Korean markets. A total of 289 minke whale samples were obtained during 12 surveys of South Korean markets from 1999-2003. Mitochondrial haplotype, sex and microsatellite-based genotyping was used, revealing products originated from 205 individuals. A capture-recapture technique then estimated that 827 minkes passed through the markets during this 5-year period. This number is somewhat larger than the 458 South Korea reported to the IWC for the same period. This technique also provided an estimate of the “half-life” of market products on sale during the survey (about 1.8 months), illustrating that markets should be monitored regularly for accurate results to be obtained.
When the figure of 827 South Korean J-Stock minkes is added to the reported Japanese incidental take of 390 from the Sea of Japan during 1999-2003 (assuming no under-reporting), over 1,200 whales were taken from this protected stock during this period (3). Some models suggest the minke J-stock cannot sustain this rate of loss. In fact previous research has suggested that in order to avoid further depletion, an annual loss of less than 50 J-stock minkes is required, and for the stock to recover, “incidental or illegal directed takes must be reduced to levels approaching zero” (4). The results of this 2000 model were originally rejected by Japan and South Korea as being “implausibly high”, but it now appears the model relied on under-reporting of South Korean by-catch and must be rejected as “implausibly low”.
Minke whales are frequently cited as being anything other than endangered, but genetically distinct populations of minkes are recognised. The J-stock is found in Korea’s East Sea. Due to declining catch per unit effort, in 1983 the IWC Scientific Committee concluded that the J-stock was depleted and should be classified as a protected stock. In the light of past commercial hunting, ongoing by-catch and low abundance estimates from recent surveys, the Committee has repeatedly expressed concern for the further depletion or even extinction of this stock. This stock may also make up some of the 100 minkes killed annually in Japan’s JARPN II hunt.
In 2005, a ‘whale treatment facility’ planned by the Ulsan Metropolitan City, was to provide a “check point for dealing with whale carcasses in an environmentally-friendly and sanitary manner” (Ministry of Maritime Affairs and Fisheries, 2005). South Korea’s policies are “designed to promote the rational and scientific conservation and sustainable use of whales and dolphins” (MOMAF, 2005), but with a mooted whale meat processing factory, no mitigation measures to reduce by-catch levels and an adult minke fetching an estimated US $100, 000, the incentive is to increase rather than reduce cetacean by-catch in these waters. The legal sale of such incidental catch may also provide the cover for directed illegal hunting and even intentional net whaling.
Japan views market monitoring as outside the IWC’s jurisdiction, but inspection procedures and sustainable stocks are required under the Revised Management Scheme before commercial whaling is to resume. Clapham and Van Waerebeek (2007) write “Market monitoring may be the only way to assess the full toll of by-catch, poaching and legal whaling.” Japan and Norway have DNA registries for material from legally killed whales, but have “resisted independent international oversight of these databases.”
Molecular analysis can provide tools for assessing the extent of illegal trade in animals, but it can also highlight genetically-isolated and unique populations. As Palumbi (2007) writes: “The larger oceanic population might be able to sustain a catch of 200 animals a year, but the structure of the whale population is sometimes so local that small and isolated populations such as the J-stock cannot support a loss rate that may seem minor on the whole-ocean scale”.
Many thanks to Jennifer and Ann for providing the links.
(1) Clapham, P and Van Waerebeek, K. (2007) Bushmeat and Bycatch: the sum of parts. Molecular Ecology, 16, 2607-2609.
(2) Baker, C. S. et al. (2007) Estimating the number of whales entering trade using DNA profiling and capture-recapture analysis of market products. Molecular Ecology, 16, 2617-2626.
(3) Palumbi, S. (2007) In the market for minke whales. Nature. Vol 447, 267-268.
(4) Baker, C. S. et al (2000) Predicted decline of protected whales based on molecular genetic monitoring of Japanese and Korean markets. Proceedings of the Royal Society of London Series B, 267, 1191-1199.